Russian Village Used, Abused, and Forgotten by the Olympics

Impoverished town illustrates corruption, abuse and human cost of games.

February 5, 2014, 10:32 AM

Feb. 5, 2014— -- ASHTYR, Russia -- If any one place embodies the allegations of corruption, abuse, and alarming human cost of the Sochi Olympics, it's here.

Ashtyr, a tiny, impoverished village in the foothills between the coastal and mountain parks where the upcoming Winter Games will be held, has been used by Olympic planners for its limestone deposits, suffered from the effects of nearby construction, and had its pleas for help ignored. The benefits of the more than $51 billion spent on the Olympics and related infrastructure investments are nowhere to be seen here.

Now, after years of exploitation and protests, it's eerily quiet here.

Just weeks ago the main (and really the only) street rumbled day and night with dump trucks. Today the town is patrolled only by trio of stray dogs.

The calm, however, barely masks the frustration of Ashtyr's residents.

The village has not had running water for over three years. Residents blame Olympic construction for contaminating their wells. A new water pipe lasted just one day, locals say, after being severed by construction vehicles. Officials only promise relief that never comes.

Two large limestone mines used to build the $8.7 billion road and rail project connecting the coast to the mountains, left massive, ugly divots in the slopes just outside town. Even worse, the powerful state-owned company that controls the mines was caught dumping waste inside and covering it up, potentially contaminating water sources downhill. Some activists say that dumping continues.

When ABC News first visited Ashtyr in November, the constant stream of stone-laden trucks kicked up a fine dust that coated everything.

Yury Ivashoff, 52, who lives along the main road, sneered as they passed by, cursing the day the Olympics were awarded to Sochi. His young daughter tugged at his shirt, coughing.

"The children here have developed strange symptoms," he said, motioning toward her. He blames the mines.

Ilya Zamesin, a cheerful 35-year-old local activist with a soft spot for American country music ("Toby Keith! Alan Jackson!") lives down the road. He said promises from local officials to help have gone unfulfilled.

We piled into his rusting white Lada ("It's not much, but it works!") to visit the mines, which he said were not supposed to be built so close to the village.

The entrance is guarded so we had to climbed up a steep slope and navigate thorn bushes to reach the rim. It was a vast pit with bulldozers smoothing over dirt. Just weeks earlier, video emerged of trucks dumping what appeared to be Olympic construction waste. The revelations led to a large fine and criticism from the International Olympic Committee.

When we came back down, a private security guard from the mine was waiting. He photographed our license plate and called into headquarters as we drove off.

When ABC News visited Ashtyr again last week, private security had been replaced by the military. Ashtyr's strategic location above that new highway and at the mouth of one of its tunnels means a dozen soldiers keep watch from a camouflaged bluff on the edge of town.

Vladimir Kimaev, a former Soviet military officer and now an environmental activist, claimed the illicit dumping continues.

Over tea in the rain he points in the direction of the large white holes in the hills.

"They are still dumping there," he said, "But only at night. They won't do it while you and I are here."

Kimaev fears the waste will seep through the porous limestone and into the water reservoirs below, which provide drinking water for the entire region.

The mines are owned by Russian Railways, the country's largest company, whose head is an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The company did not return repeated requests from ABC News for comment.

Residents of Ashtyr had hoped that, once the Olympics began, once the incessant demands of construction ended, their pleas might finally be heard. Yet to date the water has to be trucked in weekly. Authorities started to pave the town's road, but are doing a sloppy job, laying down asphalt directly on top of the mud.

Calls from ABC News to the Sochi mayor's office went unanswered.

Zamesin said he has not received a response either.

"They don't say anything, just that everything will be OK. Same thing they told us seven years ago. We hear the same thing over and over again," he said.

Zamesin said he hears they will start mining again once the Olympics are over.

"We are going to lie down in the road to prevent them from doing it," he pledged. "All of the village has agreed, even the elderly and kids."

Even with that defiant pronouncement, he conceded the sad truth about Ashtyr.

"We feel like we are forgotten. We feel like we are behind the fence of the Olympics and everyone has forgotten about us," he said.

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